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City commission delays deal for east side grocery store

Commissioners David Arreola and Reina Saco at the June 17 meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Gainesville City Commission voted to give other applicants 30 days to bring forward proposals for a grocery store on the east side of Gainesville

During their June 17 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission heard from a developer who wants to open a grocery store on the east side of town – a project that has long been a priority of city leaders. As City Manager Lee Feldman said, “I think we have an opportunity that aligns with a lot of effort, a lot of direction that the commission has had over the last couple of years.” Specifically, Feldman said the commission had previously asked staff to identify $3-$5 million to help site a community grocery store on the east side of Gainesville. Feldman said that American Rescue Plan funds could be the source of those funds.

Fred Washington, representing the Bravo supermarket chain, said his company has been looking at the former Sav-a-Lot location on SE Hawthorne Road. Washington had brought a term sheet for the deal, hoping the commission would approve it in time for the closing on the property, scheduled for August 1. 

In his presentation, Washington said Bravo is “famous” for bringing in specific foods requested by customers. He said, “Bravo is not only going to listen to the consumer, but Bravo’s also going to partner with the University of Florida; we’ve already met with their Equity and Inclusion Director.” He said Bravo would offer a place for classes that would teach minority and disadvantaged contractors how to do business with the University of Florida. He also said that they don’t have minimum amounts for buying from local farmers. He said they would bring 30 jobs, “paying the living wage, having management opportunities.” He said that hiring preference would be given to people who live near the store. They will also rent booth space inside the store to local entrepreneurs. 

“I believe it’s incumbent on us as a city commission to make sure that this goes through a public process.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Commissioner David Arreola said he was torn because he wanted the grocery store but also wanted to be “a diligent steward of the public dollar… I believe it’s incumbent on us as a city commission to make sure that this goes through a public process. I have absolutely no commentary right now to evaluate a project that hasn’t gone through a public invitation to negotiate (ITN) or request for proposal (RFP)… I would rather for us to open up a process, where if anybody has ideas where $3.3 million of the City’s CRA funds could go towards a similar project, I would like to give them a chance.”

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“Our community has asked for literal years to have something that delivers fresh food in that area. For me, that’s plenty of community input. It’s a dire need… I’m entirely comfortable.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Commissioner Reina Saco said she didn’t see any point in delaying because “our community has asked for literal years to have something that delivers fresh food in that area. For me, that’s plenty of community input. It’s a dire need… I’m entirely comfortable. I’m actually overjoyed.”

Saco asked about the terms of the loan and was told by Feldman that there’s a provision for part of the loan to go away in 5 years based on job creation, and the rest of the loan can go away in 10 years based on operation. 

“We have been out there for years asking for people to build a grocery store in east Gainesville, and anybody could have come and asked for it, and this person did ask for it and came forward with a proposal.” – Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos agreed with Saco: “It not only helps with food insecurities but also helps with transportation issues if we’re able to build out the mobility hub there. This hits all the things that we’ve talked about – living wage, local hiring, local contractors, there’s an advisory board of local members to help with that, as well. This gets us a grocery store quickly. If we went out for an ITN, six months to a year before we get that back. Our process is slow and I don’t believe that we should delay that. This is in the public, it’s open. We have been out there for years asking for people to build a grocery store in east Gainesville, and anybody could have come and asked for it, and this person did ask for it and came forward with a proposal. I believe we should move forward and that we should make sure we can provide good quality food for the residents of east Gainesville.”

Arreola moved to put out an ITN “and, of course, I want to see this application.” Mayor Lauren Poe added, “just for clarity, instruct the City Manager or designee to issue an ITN for a community grocery store in east Gainesville.” The motion died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said, “As the commissioner who represents that district, the idea of a grocery store in that area is not only exciting, it’s essential… I, too, wanted this to go through the proper process. One of the things that I have heard us say as commissioners at our last several meetings, and we stressed this from our conversation about the position of the Equity and Inclusion Officer to a myriad of other things, the importance of going through a process. And I don’t believe we can apply process to some things and not everything. I think we must be consistent.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said the City has no process for this. “If we had said, ‘Here’s the ITN we want to present,’ and then people bring different ideas to it, that’s an open and fair process, but somebody coming to us saying, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ and we take that and turn that into an ITN, that either disadvantages the person who brought that to us, or it disadvantages everybody else because that person has written the ITN basically… Regardless of what we do today, I hope that we, as a result of this, put an economic development process together that works… that allows us to be nimble for this sort of thing.”

“I need to be able to personally have integrity with every single decision that I make, and I need to be able to sleep at night, knowing that just because a legislator that I adore [State Representative Yvonne Hinson] came to us with this project, and it seems to be the right time, the right place. What happens when it’s a legislator I don’t love?” – Commissioner Gail Johnson

Commissioner Gail Johnson read the motion she made four months ago, which specified a process for getting to a community grocery store, including a “community visioning process.” She continued, “So this was difficult for me because I feel like I’m in this seat, especially in my second term, because of this community grocery. I literally ran on this community grocery… If you know anything about me at this point, if there’s one thing that you all know about me, it’s that I’m a stickler for process… When I do this job, no matter what, I don’t care how good the deal is, I don’t how it came to be. I need to be able to personally have integrity with every single decision that I make, and I need to be able to sleep at night, knowing that just because a legislator that I adore [State Representative Yvonne Hinson] came to us with this project, and it seems to be the right time, the right place. What happens when it’s a legislator I don’t love? What happens when there’s a city manager that might not be working in the best interest of the City? What happens in that case? How we avoid that is through process.”

Hayes-Santos made a three-part motion: 1) Open this up for 30 days to other proposals for a grocery store in east Gainesville with a $3.3 million incentive; 2) Direct the City Manager to bring back a final contract and term sheet to the commission, and also any other proposals that may come in; 3) Direct staff to create an economic development policy for non-solicited proposals brought to the commission. The motion was seconded by Saco. 

“I’m frankly in shock that we won’t take a very generous offer that could help so many people because today we decided process matters, that a particular process matters today. And I question the origin of that hesitation and whether it has to do with personal conflicts or personal agendas when the agenda we should all share is how to better our community and our city.” – Saco

Saco apologized to Washington, saying, “It’s not fair having you come by your own volition to the City to make a really good proposal. I only agreed to it because the hope that it would sway some of my colleagues to do what is the right thing… Process seems to matter when we have something to win politically. Process seems to matter when we want something personally to advance or we want to slow it down. Those points have been made by pretty much everybody on this commission, that sometimes we need more data, or maybe we just move along with what I want because I know it’s right and we should do it. So this conversation about process is a little irksome to me… I’m not going to look a gift horse in a mouth, I’m not. What I’m going to do is make it possible for people to have access to food. We often get told, ‘Why don’t you build grocery stores?’ and the problem is it’s not our decision. We do not build grocery stores. That’s not a City function, but we can partner and make it happen, and that’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around often. We should take it and act in the best interest of our neighbors… I’m frankly in shock that we won’t take a very generous offer that could help so many people because today we decided process matters, that a particular process matters today. And I question the origin of that hesitation and whether it has to do with personal conflicts or personal agendas when the agenda we should all share is how to better our community and our city.”

Arreola and Ward were uncomfortable with turning the term sheet into a contract during the 30 days when other entities were submitting proposals. Ward asked Hayes-Santos to change the motion to say that they would accept the term sheet in their August 5 meeting if there were no other proposals and then vote on the contract in the next meeting after that. Hayes-Santos was unwilling to do that because it would mean that Washington would have to extend the closing date on the property, which could open the contract up to changes from the seller. He said that negotiating the contract between the City and Washington “doesn’t hurt the process at all” because “If the proposals come back and we like those better, then throw away the contract that was negotiated and move forward with another proposal.”

“We need to understand the ramifications if we walk away from something that I heard everybody say they think would be a great addition to that part of our city.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Poe spoke last and said, “It seems like three of you… your overriding motivation is the urgency needed for this type of project, and for three of you… the value of a well-defined process is a little bit more important… Process is not binary, we either have process or don’t have process… This is a process… We’re about to pass a motion that is ambiguous. If we want an ITN, we need to say ‘Do this through an ITN’ or ‘Do this through an RFP’… We need to understand the ramifications if we walk away from something that I heard everybody say they think would be a great addition to that part of our city.”

Washington said Publix and Walmart are “not in a hurry to go to a food desert… because they’re concerned about shrinkage.” He said he would bring state-of-the-art surveillance “not just for the grocery store but for the laundromat, the Family Dollar, both of which have been robbed.”

Hayes-Santos said he wanted the proposals back by July 15, then they could schedule a special meeting at the end of July to approve the contract. And “that will give enough time for Mr. Washington to close on the property and not have to look for extensions.” He added a fourth part to the motion to schedule the special meeting. 

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said it was “unrealistic” to expect that her office could have final documents ready by the August 1 closing date. She also pointed to some elements that were missing from the term sheet, like a provision for the City to get its money back if the developer does not do the things they’re asked to do. She also said that requirements for competitive processes might be tied to specific funding sources, and that has to be sorted out before the City can promise that money to a third party. Specifically for American Rescue Plan money, she said the guidance is still coming out. She said August 5 would be the soonest she could bring documents to the commission for approval.

They split out the motion, first voting on taking 30 days to accept new proposals. That passed 5-2, with Saco and Arreola in dissent.

The next part, instructing the City Attorney’s office to work on a contract from the term sheet while waiting for additional proposals, failed 3-4, with Hayes-Santos, Poe, and Saco in favor of the motion.

The third and fourth parts, to develop a process and schedule the special meeting, passed unanimously. 

  • “Our community has asked for literal years to have something that delivers fresh food in that area. For me, that’s plenty of community input. It’s a dire need… I’m entirely comfortable.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

    “Our business community has asked for literal years to have a store on the east side that is not shoplifted into closing” – Business owners

  • My old economics professor at UF, Dr. David Denslow,
    would
    Probably say NO on this idea…”let the free market decide”… sounds to me like another taxpayer boondoggle like that “country kitchen” bottomless pit that
    Was on the east side…Walmart is on the east side…they want to compete with Walmart?… Walmart
    Needs to be open 24/7 again because that’s a real convenience
    For us working people.

  • Wow. These commissioners are never prepared with facts and procedures and snipe at each other as they fumble through what they don’t know.

    • (Progress)

      MuzzledZombiesOfMakeBelieve VS GoDenslowGatorsGo!

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